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DETROIT — It should come as no surprise that a José Abreu disciple wanted to play through an injury.
But a strained oblique sidelined Yoán Moncada, and the White Sox will be without their starting third baseman for roughly three weeks.
Added to the Lance Lynn injury, which will keep arguably the team’s best starting pitcher away for nearly two months, and Garrett Crochet’s season-ending Tommy John surgery, the White Sox are, immediately, thrust into a similar situation to the one they spent much of last season fighting their way through.
And once more, on the eve of Opening Day.
The good news, as Rick Hahn pointed out Thursday in Detroit, is that Lynn and Moncada will be back. That was the silver lining of the injuries to Eloy Jiménez, Luis Robert and Yasmani Grandal a year ago, too, significant ones that knocked three of the team’s best hitters out for months at a time. But without Lynn to anchor the rotation, without Moncada to do what he does for this lineup and at third base, the White Sox face odds they would have rather not at the outset of a campaign with championship expectations.
“Our expectations are high. Even with my injury and the injuries to the other guys, we’re feeling good,” Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “I feel we are in a good position to have success this year. And hopefully I’m going to be able to come back sooner rather than later and help the team.”
Part of the reason those sky-high expectations seem so reasonable is because Jiménez, Robert and Grandal are set to provide their exceptional talents and production for the length of an entire season. But through that same lens, then, the White Sox’ early season losses this time around can be seen as having negative effects for the inverse reason.
Of course, the White Sox have been here before.
Tony La Russa is not ready to “assume” that the results will be the same as they were a year ago, when a cast of fill-ins kept the White Sox’ hopes afloat. Guys like Yermín Mercedes, Jake Lamb, Brian Goodwin and Billy Hamilton did an exceptional job stepping in for the injured boppers. Those guys are all playing elsewhere (or hurt, in Mercedes’ case) this season.
Unsurprisingly, though, there’s no doing away with that time-tested “next man up” mentality. Jake Burger will get first crack at being this year’s version of an essential fill-in. He made the Opening Day roster and will be La Russa’s third baseman for Game 1 of 162 on Friday afternoon. Hahn pointed out the other candidates to get playing time at the hot corner in Moncada’s absence: the uber-versatile Leury García, starting second baseman Josh Harrison and even Andrew Vaughn, who notably led the fill-in group last year when he assumed everyday duties in left field after Jiménez went down. Vaughn was spotted practicing at third base during Thursday’s workout in Detroit.
The team’s confidence in its depth, however, does not assure these holes can be filled successfully.
That might be even more true when it comes to the vacancy created in the rotation by Lynn’s knee injury. The starting staff, even while dealing with the unique approach to Carlos Rodón’s usage, experienced relatively terrific health last year, and because of it they posted the best numbers in the AL during the regular season. Before this regular season has even started, they’ve been dealt a more sizable blow than any the pitching staff had to deal with in 2021.
Vince Velasquez, he of the 6.30 ERA in 2021, seems most likely to step into that space in the rotation, though the White Sox will await the outcomes of this weekend’s games in Detroit before picking a starter for Tuesday’s home opener. Reynaldo López could potentially factor into the starting mix, too. But Lynn’s absence isn’t the only thing expected to tax the pitching staff in the early going, not with uncertainty about what the team can expect from Michael Kopech — the guy elevated to, depending on how you look at things, the No. 3 spot in the rotation.
“He’s going to go out there and give you everything he has for as long as he has it. I think it’s going to be more on Tony and Ethan (Katz) and the coaches to rein him back in,” Hahn said of Kopech, who’s stamina remains a mystery heading into his Sunday debut. “Obviously he only got up to three ups in spring training, so it’s unreasonable to expect significantly more than that for his first start.
“His inning load for the course of the season was something that was going to be monitored. So him building up a little bit slowly in the start is only going to serve us well for the long term.
“I don’t know if any of the 30 clubs is going to sit here today and be thrilled with where their starters are from a workload standpoint,” Hahn said of the pitching staff, in general. “That’s simply a function of the unique offseason and a unique spring. We’re going to have to build up on the fly here over the course of the first several weeks. We’re going to have to be a little bit creative in our usage and remain focused on the seven-month goal here, more so than on a given day.”
Dipping into the reserve unit and the minor leagues worked wonderfully for the White Sox last season. The dice rolls on veterans like Lamb and Goodwin last year have yielded to similar moves involving Johnny Cueto and Kyle Crick this time around. But there will undoubtedly be a large reliance on guys who are plenty familiar to White Sox fans, particularly when it comes to subbing for Moncada.
It’s important to note, though, that Moncada’s injury is not Jiménez’s nor Robert’s, months-long absences that defined much of the 2021 campaign. Moncada hopes to be back in shorter order.
“He wanted to play,” Hahn said. “But also, when he sneezes or coughs or laughs, he feels a little something there. So it’s probably not something to be torquing and trying to hit a baseball with.
“We feel we caught this one early. If it had gone on a couple of days swinging, it could have been far more significant. A Grade 1 strain is something you have to respect, but at least it’s mild and we’re optimistic he’ll be back playing with us in three weeks, maybe quicker.”
If that ends up being the case, it’ll be easy to view this as one of those regular baseball injuries, something magnified only by its announcement the day before the start of the season. Hahn and La Russa aren’t wrong when they point out every team deals with injuries, either.
But with Lynn already knocked out for a third of the season and Crochet knocked out for the entire season and Moncada knocked out for, maybe, a sixth of the season and Joe Kelly sidelined for a yet undetermined amount of regular-season games – and oh by the way, Ryan Burr went on the IL on Thursday, too – it’s an immediate test for this roster and this team.
You know, the same place they were on Opening Day last year.
So don’t be surprised when the White Sox take the same approach.
“I know the importance of not assuming something we were outstanding at last year,” La Russa said, “which was playing with what we had. Not assuming it, but I have the confidence in the guys here that they understand a lot of challenges, some of them from injuries, some just from getting better as we roll along.
“I believe we are going to take our best shot. That’s really the message. (Take) your best shot, and if somebody beats you, they beat you. Anything less than your best shot is not acceptable.”
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